Brian Edwards Media

‘Er, I dunno really…’ Time to dispense with vox pops on the news?

The first television programme I ever appeared on was the Christchurch edition of the regional magazine Town and Around. The programme was on four nights a week and I was paid $18 for each item I produced. You still got paid if the film was lost in processing, which it frequently was, so in a good week I could earn $90 for five items, which was a small fortune in those days.

Along with host Bernard Smyth and reporters John O’Sullivan, Judi Douglas and David McPhail, we turned out three or four items from the region each night on everything from the closing of the Dobson mine to teaspoon collections and concrete garden ornaments. If there was a gap in the programme, we went out and did a vox pop. The word comes from the Latin vox populi, meaning ‘the voice of the people’.

These days you can see vox pops on pretty well every major news bulletin and occasionally on Close Up and Campbell Live. But they’re very different to the vox pops we had on the Town and Around programmes in the four main centres.  Our vox pops were three or four minutes long and we put the question to a lot more people in the street, maybe ten or more. So you got a reasonable, if entirely unscientific, sample of public opinion.

Compare this with the average news vox pop today. Three or four people will be considered an adequate sample; children, drunks and assorted mental defectives will be regarded as acceptable commentators; neighbours and bystanders will be treated as reliable witnesses and sometimes as forensic experts; five seconds will rate as sufficient for the expression of a considered opinion; and scant regard will be paid to the meaning of what was said in order to keep to that duration.

Here are two examples from this week’s news.

Vox Pop on raising the drinking age.

Girl late teens:

Girl: I’ve been drinking since I was, like, nine years old at least.

Reporter: So what difference would it make if the drinking age was 20 for you?

Girl: I’d still keep drinking. I like drinking.

 Woman late 30’s:

I’ve got a teenage son, er, problems going wild, so probably 20 is [cut off]

Young Couple 20’s:

Woman: Just leave it at 18.

Man: Yeah

Man, early 20’s

I’d probably go back up to 20 personally, you know, because I’m over 20, but I’m sick of seeing kids in the pubs.

Vox Pop on Compulsory Saving

Man, 30s:

Anything to save for our future, I suppose, is a good thing, especially when you’ve got kids.

Man 60’s:

Man: No, not compulsory, no.

Reporter: Why not?

Man: Well, it’s free choice isn’t it?

Woman 60’s

Yeah, I think it should be compulsory.

So there we are. The voice of the people has spoken. We now know where the public stands on raising the drinking age and on compulsory saving.  Don’t we?

Well, we don’t really, do we? We know where four  people stand on raising the drinking age with the additional information that one likes drinking, one has a son going wild and one is over 20 and hates seeing younger people in pubs. And we know where three people stand on compulsory savings.

I have just completed a vox pop in our house on the question:  ‘Are vox pops on the news utterly inane and a total and absolute waste of time?’ I interviewed a curmudgeonly old gent in his early seventies and his much younger, attractive wife. Both answered ‘yes’. I conclude that there is 100% support in New Zealand for abandoning vox pops on the news. The people have spoken.

,

12 Comments:

  1. It’s not just the vox pop itself. To be honest, nobody has anything useful to say about a vague précis of what’s probably going to be in an inevitably complex piece of legislation nobody’s actually seen.

    Or have I missed something?

  2. Is there an unwritten rule that voxpops have to reflect the lowest common denominator? A UK journalist in America recently included a single ‘voice from the street’ on her piece about Obama; the lady claimed the ‘Obama was deliberately running this country [america] into the ground’. I mean really, such a claim is patently false and yet it gets aired to millions of viewers around the world. I would much rather hear a voxpop that showed a modicum of understanding of the issue at hand.

  3. Maybe it’s just that there’s only a small subset of people willing to stop and say something to a camera these days, and still feel comfortable that their sound-byte will be accurately represented.

    I don’t know how meaningful my own view would be in any voxpop, but I think the way I feel about news & current affairs on TV1 and TV3 means it’s unlikely to ever be tested.

  4. It’s all filler. They need everything they can get to help fill in 44 minutes, er 60 minutes of “news”.

  5. Hang on hang on,
    you write, Mr Edwards “….we don’t really, do we? We know where four people stand on raising the drinking age with the additional information that…..”
    Could you be happy with even briefer editing and then you get the information with no colour, no qualifier?
    Maybe a bunch of yep, nahs, and dunnos.. surely folk in the street will offer that much – with the certain guarantee that they can’t be misrepresented (Mike @17.26?)

  6. yep, nah … dunno.

    :)

    Mike@17.26

  7. My friends were approached to be interviewed for the raising the drinking age Vox Pop you mention.

    When I asked them why they declined they replied:

    “because everyone who does it ends up looking like an idiot on national television”

  8. I think there is a place for vox pops but not in the format they use.The internet provides a great place to exploit the voice of the people.Dr Edwards blog is a great example of peoples voices.This could provide a chance for people to have a little think about what they actually felt about issues.I concede this may not be as entertaining as the lady who “had no secrets”

  9. Today’s vox pops are in the same rubbish bin as the now near-compulsory live TV eye witness cross. They both invariably tell us nothing new, but merely provide a change of image on the flickering social playing field in the corner of the room.
    How is The Great Unwashed ever going to learn anything from tv news, when it’s packaged in such an E!Channel manner…?

  10. Some media fronts are using the internet. Stuff and the Herald both allow comments on selected stories, as do TVNZ and TV3, I think. The forums are often still designed to encourage short one-line text-message-type comments and discourage any lengthy in-depth discussion, though.

    From what I can tell with few exceptions, people find an article and post a quick comment rather than keep returning to follow and participate in any ongoing discussion. I’m unsure if the comments they often attract are often very different from the typical voxpop sound-bytes that pop up on TV. Maybe they sometimes are. Compare this with a more regular blog such as this one which tends to build a readership from a specific section of society, and has regular followers with back and forth discussions and people responding to each other. Most blogs built around any controversial topic, like media or politics, will probably have some bias in the views they attract, though.